Atlantic Theater Company opens the retrospective of its co-founder, David Mamet, with The Water Engine, originally written for radio, and even less happy on the stage than at its 1977 premiere. Then, however, more was made of its broadcast provenance, which has now been reduced to a dangling minimum in Karen Kohlhaas's rather lackluster staging.
The play frames its story with an evocation of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair (a celebration of science) and recurrent recitations of a chain letter (survival of the irrational). The story itself tells how lawyers from a big corporation try to muscle in on the momentous invention of an obscure homunculus, Charles Lang, whereby engines could run on plain tap water. Lang, who lives with his sister and whose only friends are the kindly owner of a hash house where he eats and the owner's small but spirited son, is a typical high-minded loser. He refuses to sell out to the tentacular corporation's corrupt lawyers and pays for it dearly, even though he posthumously scores a Pyrrhic victory.
This, like other minor pieces by our supposedly major playwright, proves more interesting than his grandly attitudinizing big ones. Mamet has some feeling for another David whose slingshot proves less effective against modern-day Goliaths. But The Water Engine was designed for radio, which is to say disembodied voices; in the theater, words must become flesh, space assume concrete shape. Hence, for example, unidentified characters spouting chain-letter inanities from limbo do not engage us on the boards as they would on the air.
The production is decently designed and generally well acted but unhappily preceded by a Mamet curtain-raiser, Mr. Happiness, in which a radio problem-solver advises troubled callers. This mini-monodrama does not rehabilitate a frowned-upon profession, nor does it function as social satire, and it achieves nothing. Bob Balaban may be excused for failing to salvage it, but not for taking it on.